MIAMI – You watch the national baseball team from Puerto Rico dog-pile in about the same place as the Dominican Republic did the night before, and consider that the Netherlands is one of the teams that awaits in San Francisco, and you conclude that this is the sort of thing the World Baseball Classic bears.
Put a man in his national colors, surround him with others in the same gear, and – while this is wholly unquantifiable – together they play a little better. Some nights, perhaps, a lot better. Certainly harder. Definitely more inspired.
Here in the U.S., however, it brings a tendency to swing at ball four and botch pitching decisions. Granted, it's a subtle difference.
Nearly three full WBCs in, and Team USA is 10-10, has never won the thing, has twice lost in the second round, and on Friday night was eliminated by Puerto Rico by a score of 4-3.
The Dominican Republic, which beat the U.S. on Thursday night, plays Puerto Rico on Saturday afternoon for the purpose of seeding in the semifinals. Beyond that, the field of four – the Netherlands and Japan are the others – is set. And once again, a tournament that appears reasonably popular in Asia and Latin America struggles to establish a sporting foothold in its host country, because the host country's team shrinks in its national jerseys.
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Behind six pitchers unlikely to break spring training on a major-league roster, Puerto Rico easily handled a U.S. lineup without David Wright. Nelson Figueroa, the 38-year-old right-hander who hasn't pitched in the big leagues since posting an 8.69 ERA for the Houston Astros in 2011, threw six scoreless innings. The night before, about four months after being out-righted off the Minnesota Twins' 40-man roster, Dominican Republic starter Samuel Deduno allowed a run in four innings.
While the hue and cry targets Joe Torre's managing, or Mark Wegner's umpiring, or Wright's and Mark Teixeira's injuries, or spring's rust, or pitchers who need innings, or hitters who need at-bats, we're three Classics in and the story is unchanged. Other teams play better. They think better. They certainly appear to play harder. And Team USA gets stoned by Nelson Figueroa and Samuel Deduno, bless their patriotic hearts.
That said, Team USA does put on a helluva party. Puerto Rico center fielder Angel Pagan squeezed Jimmy Rollins' fly ball to end the ninth inning, launching a screaming, soaring, weepy celebration the likes of which Torre's guys hadn't seen in, oh, hours.
"It sucks a little bit," U.S. second baseman Brandon Phillips said.
Perhaps there's no fixing Team USA's issues. Its players play for October, not March. At any given moment on Friday night, there might have been a dozen players from Puerto Rico hanging on the dugout rail while, across the field, only Larry Bowa and Dale Murphy did the same. Rail hanging doesn't win games, but competitive urgency might help. The game is strong and rich here, and therefore lacks the desperation that drives teams from other places.
Before Friday night's game, Pagan gathered his teammates, bulged his eyes and shouted about honor and dignity and the kids back home who needed a light to follow. They could be their lights, he told them.
"It's something to project for the kids," Pagan said. "You have a responsibility. I think it sends the perfect message: Names don't win ballgames."
So when that last baseball soared into center field, as his teammates rushed from the dugout to the mound, as they zigzagged from their positions looking for someone to hug, Pagan was the only one who waited for it to come down.
"When I caught that ball, I was thinking of my country," he said. "Hopefully, Puerto Rico is proud of us."
This isn't to say American players weren't proud of their unis. They certainly seemed to be. And the loss to injury of Wright stung, as he was not only the team's most inspirational personality, but he was by far its best hitter. In six games, most of those against mediocre pitching, Team USA hit one home run – Wright's grand slam against Italy.
Left without him, the U.S. scored four runs in two games, had a 14-inning scoreless stretch, and lost twice.
Minutes before the game against Puerto Rico, Torre gathered his men and told them, "I'm having too much fun to go home."
And then it was Puerto Rico laughing and having fun, while Torre and his men went home.
Hours before what could have been another of his final games in uniform – '07 with the New York Yankees was one, '10 with the Los Angeles Dodgers was another – Torre had looked down at his current jersey.
"They're not getting it back, though," he said, smiling.
He's 72. He won 2,326 major-league games as a manager, more than half over 12 seasons with the Yankees.
The first time we'd had this conversation, he'd been run out of the playoffs by Paul Byrd, Grady Sizemore and the Cleveland Indians, and was about to be run off the Yankees by the Steinbrenners.
The second time, he'd endured three years of Frank and Jamie McCourt, which would be plenty for anyone, never mind a guy with any self-respect whatsoever.
Well, here he was again, this time on a two-week joyride with Team USA, trying to bleed wins out of players who were part-way through spring training, whose allegiances might have been split, whose paychecks were not.
And then that was over, too. The players would return to their teams, resume their careers, forget this the moment they see their old unis hanging in their lockers. Not Torre. There might not be another uniform.
A pitching decision in the sixth inning had blown up. His starter, Ryan Vogelsong, had enough pitches under the limit to finish another hitter. There were two out, a man was on first. He'd given up a single run in 5 2/3 innings. He'd rarely been in real trouble. Torre called on Vinnie Pestano, however, and Pestano allowed a single, two walks and a double before Torre could get back to the mound. The limp U.S. offense would not recover.
"The only thing I can say is this has been one of the most memorable experiences of my career," Torre said. "I mean, I'm a little emotional, but this has been much more than I – I can't say – I guess much more than I expected.
"We all seem to have a rating system that winning is the only thing we accept. But I wish everybody had a chance to be in my place during these last couple of weeks to just see the commitment and the investment that these players – all of them, every single one of them – have had and made to this WBC."
That may be true. Maybe, at the end of the day, the U.S. team simply isn't as good as the others.
Huh. Hang that from the rail for a while.
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